A new film adaptation of Noel Coward’s famously ‘spirited’ 1941 play Blithe Spirit is coming to a (insert however the hell we’ll be seeing movies in December) near you, starring pretty pretties Isla Fisher, Dan Stevens, and Leslie Mann, and the Middleburg Film Festival offered a drive-in screening of this fluffy farce, this celebration of cynicism, on the fest’s opening night. Screenwriter Piers Ashworth reinvigorates the story with a more female-friendly, feminist bend, and one character who is decidedly more sympathetic, although the story still takes place in the 30s, with all the attendant style and panache.
In the original play by Noel Coward, Blithe Spirit was conceived as a way to temporarily still thoughts of mortality and loss so pervasive during the Second World War. Premiering in London’s West End on July 2nd of 1941, Blithe Spirit came only months after over 32,000 Brits had died in the Blitz. His cynical take on death and the afterlife, featuring heartless characters impossible to root for, was meant to offer a frivolous respite from the destruction and death surrounding them. Coward knew all too well how tenuous life and home could be, having had his London office entirely blown to rubble during the bombing.
Some of the same issues are in evidence in 2020. This Halloween, blood, guts, gore, and the terror of the usual horror fare, just don’t cut it when a pandemic is killing people all over the world. Well-dressed, flamboyant spirits, haunting each other out of spite, is about all many of us can take.
As directed by Edward Hall, who formerly helmed episodes of Downton Abbey, MI-5 and Kingdom, the story zips along, driven by the characters with far more complicated motivations, though they are still largely unlikeable. Novelist and self-absorbed artiste Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens) is suffering from writer’s block, much to the chagrin of his fastidious wife Ruth (Isla Fisher). She got him his current gig of converting his novel into a screenplay for her high-powered film producer daddy. When Charles gets the idea of centering his script on a medium, he involves famed spiritualist Madame Arcati (Judi Dench). The trouble starts when she accidentally calls forth the spirit of Charles’s first wife Elvira (Leslie Mann), who wants Charles for herself. After all, she had him first. Additional touches in the plot involve Elvira’s rather loosely defined longterm role as Charles’s muse, and his inexplicable on-again off-again attraction to Ruth. Apart from Madame Arcati, the characters are all insufferable. Arcati still grieves for her beloved husband, dead these 30 years, and everything she does springs from a desire to connect with him.
What we’ve really got is a preponderance of eye candy, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
The locations are spectacular, particularly the gorgeous house in which most of the action takes place. The costumes are a celebration of narcissism. They essentially build the characters for the audience from the outside in, which is appropriate since no one here shows any amount of depth or introspection. The actors are all perfectly in sync with each other, each in part chewing their bits of scenery, almost like virtuosic be-bop jazz musicians taking solos as part of performing together.
For folks whose most fervent dream is seeing a Downton Abbey palate cleanse, an exuberant, light, drawing-room comedy with the same attention to costume and production design, this Blithe Spirit will be a delight. Anyone needing depth should look elsewhere, but man cannot live on Jean-Paul Sartre alone.
3 out of 5 stars.